The Common Core is upon is. In my opinion, this is an excellent shift in thinking for teachers and students alike. We are transitioning away from the “mile-wide, inch-deep” mentality and beginning to focus more on the depth of learning, and praising divergent, critical thinking. I have had the astute pleasure of helping rewrite our district’s curriculum maps recently, allowing me to go through the process of deconstructing each of the standards and examining each of the mathematical practices to see what this type of learning truly looks like.
While it is hard to encapsulate the meaning of this paradigm shift in words, it is rather easy to tell you what this doesn’t look like.
Multiple Choice Testing
Currently, many districts around the country use the NWEA-MAP testing in order to assess students, in some cases as much as three times per year. This benchmark data provides teachers with a percentile-ranked score, and can even break this score down into strands. In many cases, this has helped me a great deal. Because of this, I am able to ascertain a quick snapshot of my students’ capabilities when I first meet them, and it allows me to progress monitor their growth throughout the year.
It is imperative to note my word choice, here: quick snapshot. NWEA-MAP is, by no means, a comprehensive battery that will paint the picture of the whole child and their growth throughout the year. Rather, this multiple-choice test tells me, partially, the skills students have mastered, and also, their ability to use deductive reasoning to answer a question on a test. The Common Core is not asking students to learn how to use deductive reasoning; rather, the Common Core is asking students to become critical thinkers, who use logical reasoning to arrive at an answer or a conclusion and evaluate that conclusion from different perspectives.
This simply cannot be assessed with a multiple-choice test. This also cannot be assessed a mere three times per year.
Further, I am perplexed by the two different ways each of these philosophies are asking me to teach. The NWEA-MAP, the test through which my effectiveness is assessed, is asking me to teach “a mile-wide and an inch-deep,” providing students with lessons in subsequent skills after they’ve mastered a simpler one. However, the Common Core is asking me to go deeper with this “mastered” skill, enriching it with critical thinking and real-world applications. Naturally, in some cases, this requires more skills to be taught, but not always. What’s a teacher to do? Teach to MAP and go against my philosophy and the Common Core so I’ll be assessed as “effective”? Or do what I know to be right?
Worksheets and Isolated Skill Practice
Too often, teachers rely on worksheets to do their teaching. They model a couple practice problems, reread the directions for them, and then ask them to complete the rest of the worksheet. Oftentimes, this results in the teacher grading the assignment for accuracy, and putting a red mark in a book, showing which students were able to follow directions and a pattern, and which students were not.
Am I saying these things have no place in the classroom? Of course not. However, this should not be the extent of our teaching. Activities that require rote practice should only be used to build the base knowledge necessary to facilitate application of knowledge later on. In my opinion, these rote worksheets should be used for no more than a day or two for a certain skill. If they’re not getting it after that, then it is essential to find a different avenue through which to build this base knowledge.
After this base knowledge is built, relevance and application can only come when it is connected to a larger problem situation in order for it to find use. For example, grammar is most commonly taught using worksheets. Once again, I see the value in this, but only for a short period of time. In the recent grammar unit I taught, we tied each of the grammatical skills to the essential outcome, I can identify the subject and predicate of a sentence in order to edit for complete sentences.
Was identifying the subject and predicate important in isolation? No, not really, but was it essential to the identification and correction of incomplete sentences or run-ons? You bet it was, and each day we reviewed the purpose for these smaller skills, and then were even able to find a place for it in our expository writing rubric. Even more so, it led to critical questioning when examining sentences that contained dependent clauses and conjunctions adjoining two complete sentences.
Teaching with this Common Core mentality truly requires teachers to become more interdisciplinary than ever. While grammar and writing may not seem interdisciplinary, they are. Too often, these subjects are not taught in coordination, and students are expected to be writing with correct grammar and spelling without receiving the instruction in recognizing and correcting these errors. Instead, they are given the, “Does this sound right?” question. Of course it sounds right to them–that’s why they wrote it!
Teaching to the Common Core means to teach thinking, to find relevance in the subject matter that our students are absorbing daily, and to teach with a larger purpose in mind, not with the multiple choice test at the end.
Thank you for listening. I’ll step off my soapbox now.